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REASONABLENESS OF CHRISTIANITY.
But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak forth the words of truth
and soberness. —- ACTS, xxvi. 25.
Paul was a chosen vessel to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, who had never been favored with the light of divine revelation. He was amply furnished, by nature and grace, for this great and arduous undertaking. Being a man of argument as well as of eloquence, he was qualified to address the understandings and consciences, as well as hearts, of his hearers, by displaying divine truths in the most clear and consistent light. It is said of him, in distinction from all the other apostles, that he reasoned in his preaching. He was often obliged to encounter the learning and sophistry of pagan priests and philosophers, in his private discourses. But at length he was called to make a more public and studied defence of himself and of his religion, in the presence of two Roman rulers. The words I have read are a part of his able and animated apology before Festus, and king Agrippa. In this defence, he first draws his own character both before and after he embraced the gospel; and then labors to make it appear that he had acted a proper part, in embracing Christianity, which was perfectly agreeable to the dictates of his own reason, enlightened and enlarged by the writings of Moses and the prophets. After mentioning his former opposition to Christ and his followers, his surprising conversion on his way to Damascus, and his commission from Christ to preach the gospel, he proceeds to say: “ Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision; but showed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all VOL. iv.
the coasts of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. For these causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me. Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come; that Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should show light unto the people, and to the Gentiles." Here Festus abruptly interrupted him in his plea, and “said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.” Paul meekly and firmly replied, “ I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak forth the words of truth and soberness." Though I have seen a heavenly vision, and conversed with the divine Redeemer himself; yet I am entirely free from enthusiasm or religious madness. I was once as much opposed to the religion of Christ, as you are; but I have been rationally convinced of its truth and divinity. I do not wish to display my learning or eloquence upon this subject, for I am persuaded it will bear the most thorough and critical examination of the soundest understanding. This seems to be the spirit of the apostle's declaration in the text; which naturally suggests this important inquiry : whether Christianity be a religion agreeable to reason.
To give light and satisfaction to the mind upon this subject, which lies at the foundation of all our future and eternal hopes, it is necessary to consider, in the first place, what we are to understand by the christian religion; in the next place, what we are to understand by reason; and in the last place, what ground there is to believe that Christianity is agreeable to
I. We are to consider what we are to understand by the christian religion.
The religion, properly called christian, essentially differs from the religion of pagans, Mohammedans, Jews, and deists, and contains a system of divine truths, which centre in Christ, who came into the world to save sinners. It comprehends not only the doctrines and duties, which are said to be taught by Christ in the course of his ministry, but all those things which are said to be taught by the inspired writers of the Old and New Testament. According to this general description of Christianity, it is easy to perceive that there are two things which deserve a more particular consideration.
1. That Christianity is a revealed religion, and draws its origin from a higher source than the mere light of nature. It is not of man, but of God. “ I certify you, brethren,” says the apostle, " that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it but by the revelation of Jesus Christ." In another epistle he asserts, “ All scripture is given by inspiration of God.”. The apostle Peter also speaks the same language upon this subject. “ The prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." Christianity is no human discovery, but a religion which comes to us through the medium of divine inspiration. Though it contains some things which were known by the light of nature, yet they were not known in their relation to Christ, and to the work of redemption. So that, strictly speaking, Christianity is altogether a revealed religion. Besides,
2. This revealed religion is designed for none but sinful and guilty creatures. In this respect, it totally differs from that natural religion which is sufficient for innocent creatures, who have never disobeyed their Maker, nor incurred his displeasure. It always has been and always will be sufficient for the holy angels to worship God agreeably to the natural dictates of their enlarged understandings and benevolent hearts; and the same natural religion was sufficient for Adam, so long as he retained his primitive purity and innocence. But as soon as he involved himself and his posterity in sin and guilt, natural religion could no longer be of
avail to him or to them. Their relation to God, and his relation to them, was materially altered. Instead of their being his dutiful servants, they were his rebellious subjects; and instead of his being their reconciled Father, he was their offended Sovereign and supreme Judge; so that part, no friendly intercourse could possibly exist, through the medium of mere natural religion. After this, no other religion could recover the forfeited favor of God, but that which was revealed, and which was adapted to their guilty and perishing condition. And such is the nature and design of Christianity, according to the representations of scripture. Christ gives this just and comprehensive description of it. “ God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And agreeably to this, he told the world, “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Paul likewise, in his defence before Agrippa, declares that Christ sent him to preach his religion, which was designed “ to open the eyes of sinners, and to turn them from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified.” Christianity is the religion which God has devised and revealed to men for their recovery from their fallen and perishing state ; and it is completely adapted in all its parts, to answer this most gracious and important design. Having shown what Christianity is, in distinction from all other religions which have ever been devised or practiced in the world, I proceed in the next place,
II. To consider what we are to understand by reason, in this discourse upon the reasonableness of Christianity.
Reason is one of the most common words in our language; and in common cases is well understood and properly used. But when it is employed in relation to Christianity, as it often is, there is no word more abused or misapplied. This renders it necessary, in treating upon the present subject, to explain the term with precision and accuracy. Some make a distinction between reason and reasoning. By reason they mean the power of perceiving the agreement or disagreement of ideas in plain propositions. By reasoning they mean the power of arranging ideas, so as to infer or demonstrate one truth from another. But without pretending to determine whether there be any foundation for this distinction, I proceed to say, that by reason, in this discourse, I mean that power, faculty, or capacity of the mind, by which we are able to discern the agreement and disagreement of ideas, to form them into distinct propositions, and to draw just conclusions from them. Now this capacity may be greatly strengthened and improved by exercise. This appears from the different improvements which have been made, in almost every branch of human knowledge. What a wide difference appears between civilized and uncivilized nations, in regard to the arts and sciences. This difference is principally owing to the different cultivation of the reasoning powers.
It is hard to conceive to what extent reason may be improved by exercise. How many truths did Newton investigate from this plain proposition: “ All matter tends to rest, and cannot move without a mover!” And how many truths have mankind in general derived from another proposition equally plain : “ That our senses are to be trusted!” We all know, by what we see in others and what we find in ourselves, that every intellectual faculty may be greatly improved by exercise. But it is of more importance to observe that reason may be assisted, as well as cultivated. The bodily eye can be assisted by glasses. Let a person look through a microscope, and he can discern things extremely small; or let him look through a telescope, and he can discover objects iminensely distant. But if the natural eye may be assisted by glasses, why may not the mental eye be equally assisted by divine revelation? Suppose God should reveal to a certain astronomer the exact magnitude of the sun, and its precise distance
from the earth, would it not greatly assist him in making many new and important discoveries in astronomy? So, if God has revealed certain truths respecting the works of creation, providence and redemption, must we not suppose that this revelation may greatly assist mankind in their reasonings upon natural, moral and religious subjects? By reason, therefore, in relation to Christianity, we are to understand the natural power, faculty, or capacity of discerning and investigating truth, as improved by exercise, and assisted by divine revelation. It is now time to consider,
III. What ground there is to believe that Christianity is a religion agreeable to reason.
Here we are not to inquire whether Christianity be discover. able by reason, because we have seen that it comes to us under the profession and sanction of divine revelation. The only inquiry is, whether Christianity, as it is revealed in the gospel, be a religion agreeable to reason. Upon this I would observe,
1. It is agreeable to reason that Christianity, which is designed for the recovery of sinners from their lost and guilty state, should be a revealed religion. Unassisted reason, in its most improved state, could never discover a religion which could restore sinners to the forfeited favor of God. When the angels, who kept their first estate, saw the defection and revolt of their fellow angels, they could not and did not discover any religion which could rescue them from deserved destruction; but gave them up as irrecoverably lost. They knew it was the duty of those rebels to repent and submit to their offended sovereign; but they could not see how repentance and submission could restore them to the divine favor. So when they saw the apostacy of the human race, they could not devise any religion which was adapted to their deplorable state, and which would have the least tendency to prevent their everlasting ruin. Nor could Adam himself. This appears from his shunning the divine presence, in complete despair. He undoubtedly roused up all his reasoning powers, but the most vigorous exercise of these, could only strip him of all hope from his righteous Law. giver. He could know and feel that he ought to repent and submit to his supreme Judge; but he could not see how his supreme Judge could consistently pardon and save him, on the ground of mere repentance and submission. And ever since his first offence, none of his posterity have been able to see that repentance and submission are any proper ground of pardon and acceptance in the sight of God. If there be any religion, therefore, in this fallen world, which is completely adapted to save fallen creatures, it must have originated in the divine mind, and come to us by a divine revelation. And since Christianity