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It should not be overlooked, nor forgotten, that religion does not deprive men of any of the innocent enjoyments of life, or of any lawful gain and worldly advantage. In the way of virtue many good men find a large share of these things. And whatever they possess, they enjoy it without the sting of guilty reflections, and the remorse of unrighteousness and oppression. And if at any time, in the course of things, they are called to resign any earthly advantages; their religious principles and virtuous dispositions enable them to do it without regret, and support them under such losses.
It must be obvious to all, that the end of such is preferable to that of other men, which is a thing of no small moment. This the Psalmist speaks of with the fullest assurance, and calls upon all men to take notice of it: "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace," Ps. xxxvii. 37.
They have also many comforts in the way. They have a delightful communion with God in devout exercises of the mind, in prayer and praise, performed in a spiritual manner, accompanied with humility, gratitude, trust in the divine care and providence, and resignation to his will. They have pleasure in the persuasion of the divine approbation and acceptance, and the hope of a fuller participation of his likeness, and everlasting felicity in his presence. And do you not think the fellowship of saints may be as comfortable as that of sinners? or that the conversation of wise and virtuous men is as pleasing, yea, more delightful and entertaining, as well as more edifying, than the society of the wicked and profane, or those who have no sense of religion, and mind the affairs of this world only?
Moreover, the way of virtue will grow more and more easy, pleasant, and delightful: and that especially, as virtuous habits strengthen and improve. This well deserves the observation of those, who are discouraged by disadvantageous apprehensions concerning the way of obedience to God's commandments.
Once more, religion, and conformity to its rules and precepts, afford support and comfort under the troubles and afflictions of this life, from which none are exempted: as David says at ver. 165 of this psalm: "Great peace have they that love thy law. And nothing shall offend them."
Upon the whole then, good men, who live in the fear of God all their days, who are upright and conscientious, serious, and truly religious, being conscious of their integrity, and persuaded of the divine favour, and having
hopes of a future recompense, have much comfort both in life, and in death: and their way and their condition are preferable to those of other men.
2. Another plea and excuse made by some is to this purpose: we do not intend by any means to persist in sin always: we fully purpose and hope to repent of, and forsake it, before we die. And we have such persuasion of the grace and mercy of God that we believe he will accept of and pardon us, though it be ever so late.
But this plea has been considered and confuted already, in a great measure, under the first head, where we showed the uncertainty and unlikelihood of repentance, proposed to be made some time hereafter, and consequently the folly and danger of deferring it, and neglecting the present opportunity. With regard to the other part of this plea, the ground of delaying, here insisted upon," the grace and mercy of God," I now observe these following things.
1.) That this way of arguing is extremely disingenuous. Because God is good and merciful, even to sinners, when they return to him, you encourage yourself in an evil way, and presume to try the utmost of divine patience and mercy and, as it were, resolve, at the least, that you will allow yourselves, for a long course of time, to multiply transgressions of his laws, and offences against him. Nor do you think of forsaking those ways that are contrary to his will, and displeasing to him, till near the end of life: when health and strength will be impaired by age, or sickness, or accidents: and you are as unfit for the service of God, as of man, and the enjoyments of life have lost all their relish. Is not this very disingenuous? a thought unworthy of a rational being?
2.) With regard to the extent of the divine mercy, and the hope of sharing in it upon the latest repentance, several things may be observed.
The mercy of God is certainly very great. Nor does it become us to set limits to it. It may be extended to some very late, if sincere penitents. We dare not deny, that whensoever sinners forsake the evil of their ways and their doings, he will have mercy upon them, accept them, and pardon them. Nevertheless none are in more danger of being excluded, than those who in the early days of life are favoured with frequent and earnest calls and invitations, and withstand them. And there are in scripture some declarations and threatenings, which are very awful and affecting. You know, that a peremptory sentence passed upon the whole congregation of the people of Israel, who often re
peated their transgressions. "Because," said the Lord, "all those men, which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt, and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice: surely they shall not see the land which I promised unto their fathers," Numb. xiv. 22, 23. Which event is improved both by the Psalmist, and the Apostle in the epistle to the Hebrews, as a warning to men, not to provoke the Divine Being by long delays, and repeated acts of disobedience, and to improve the present opportunity, saying: "To-day, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation," Ps. xcv. 7, 8. Heb. iii. and iv. And men are directed by one of the prophets, in this manner: "Seek the Lord, while he may be found. Call ye upon him, while he is near," Is. lv. 6. And very moving are the warnings and expostulations of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, "How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity, -and fools hate knowledge,--Because I have called, and ye refused: I have stretched out my hands, but no man regarded: but ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity, and will mock, when your fear cometh. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer. They shall seek me early;" that is, when distresses and calamities have befallen them; "but they shall not find me. For that they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord," Prov. i. 23-29.
As for the repentance and acceptance of the penitent thief, we do not know when he repented. The crime, for which he suffered, may have been committed by him, and repented of, some while before. Supposing his repentance to be very late, and very sudden, on the day of his death only his case is altogether singular, on account of his suffering with Jesus. You know, likewise, that the other malefactor repented not, even then. Moreover the penitent gave extraordinary proofs of the sincerity of his repentance: under the pains of crucifixion acknowledging the justice of the punishment he underwent, professing faith in Jesus, and praying to him, in the time of his lowest abasement, when almost all the world rejected him, and the disciples themselves failed, through the weakness of their faith. Above all it should be considered, that there is a great difference between his case and theirs who live under the gospeldispensation. He had not in early life such instructions, such warnings, such calls and invitations, as you have had. The parable of the labourers hired into the vineyard at
the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours of the day, does not relate to the ages of man's life: but rather represents the dispensations of Divine Providence in the several ages of the world. They who were hired at the eleventh hour are the Gentiles, who had been long without the benefit of revelation. Therefore when asked, "Why stand ye here all the day idle?" they say, " because no man hath hired us," Matt. xx. 1-16, which shows, that the doctrine of this parable cannot countenance delays in things of religion; or encourage those to expect particular calls and invitations in old age, who have been favoured with such advantages, and neglected them, in the time of their youth.
3. Once more: some may say, we are backward now, in the time of our youth, and the early days of life, to enter upon the ways of religion and virtue, because we fear we shall not persevere. And if we should finally fall away, our guilt would be increased.
To which I answer: you are in the right to be sensible of your own weakness, and the difficulties of a religious course of life. For there are difficulties therein. It is a great undertaking and should be entered upon with mature consideration. Nevertheless, you have no good reason to defer, or hesitate in your choice. If you are serious and sincere in the undertaking, your progress and perseverance may be reckoned very likely and hopeful.
They who set out in the way of religion with a mixture of worldly views and expectations, may well fall away, if "tribulation, or persecution, ariseth because of the word," Matt. xiii. 21. But they who have a true principle of virtue will hold out to the end. They went out from us," says St. John," but they were not of us. For if they had been of us, no doubt they would have continued with us. But they went out, that they might be made manifest, that they were not all of us," 1 John ii. 19.
Observe the history of the Old and New Testament. And I presume, you will scarce find any instances of total apostacy in men who were once sincerely good, but many examples of early and persevering piety. Abraham immediately obeyed the call of God, and went out, not knowing whither he went. And he continued to give frequent proofs of a strong and lively faith. Isaac and Jacob walked with God all their days. Joseph was an example of early and constant virtue, both in prosperity and adversity. Moses, as soon as he came to years" of discretion," refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter: choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the
pleasures of sin, which are but for a season," Heb. xi. 23-26. Nor did he ever repent of that choice. Samuel was early dedicated to God, and was eminent for wisdom and piety all his days to old age. Of Obadiah, chief minister to king Ahab, we are informed that he " feared the Lord greatly," I Kings xviii. 3. And we know also, that he "feared the Lord from his youth," ver. 12. I might mention Daniel, the three young men his companions, who persevered, notwithstanding great trials: and others, enrolled in the catalogue of worthies, in the epistle to the Hebrews, and elsewhere: famous not for one act of faith only, however eminent and distinguished, but for a course of steady virtue and obedience.
If in the New Testament we meet with some who believed and followed Jesus for a time, and afterwards "went back,. and walked no more with him," John vi. 66, it appears evidently, that they went not upon a good foundation at the beginning; but came to Christ with worldly views and expectations. And if it be said of Simon Magus, that he "believed," Acts viii. 13, we know that he was never sincere his heart was not right in the sight of God," ver 21. At the same time, there were churches, or societies of men, the greater part of which were faithful, and persevered under many difficulties and discouragements. The apostles of Christ were for the most part, from the beginning, plain, honest, upright men. And when he called them, they obeyed without delay. And though they had their failings, one only was lost. The rest would not go away: and were, upon the whole, and to the end, an honour to him, and their profession: being persuaded that he had the words of eternal life," John vi. 68.
You have no reason, therefore, to be disheartened. By taking heed to God's word, the young may cleanse their way," Ps. cxix. and always keep themselves pure from the pollutions of an evil world. With the use of the appointed means, the spiritual life, once begun, will be maintained. And if you watch and pray, as Christ has directed, you shall be preserved from great temptations, or shall be victorious therein.
III. Let me now propose to you some motives and arguments, inducing to early piety, and immediate compliance with the gracious calls of God.
1. The whole of our time ought to be employed in the service of God. Nor can we in any part of life knowingly and willingly transgress any of God's commandments without contracting guilt. We ought therefore, as soon as we