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THERE is no question of greater importance to mankind, and that it more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this: What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favour with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards? Or, which comes to the same thing, What is the nature of true religion, and wherein lie the distinguishing notes of that virtue which is acceptable in the sight of God? But though it be of such importance, and though we have clear and abundant light in the word of God to direct us in this matter, yet there is no one point wherein professing Christians differ more one from another. It would be endless to reckon up the variety of opinions, in this point, that divide the Christian world; making manifest the truth of that declaration of our Saviour, Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leads to life, and few there be that find it.
The consideration of these things has long engaged me to attend to this matter with the utmost diligence and care, and all the exactness of search and inquiry of which I have been capable. It is a subject on which my mind has been peculiarly intent, ever since I first entered on the study of divinity. But as to the success of my inquiries, it must be left to the judgment of the reader of the following treatise.
I am sensible it is difficult to judge impartially of the subject of this discourse, in the midst of the dust and smoke of present controversy, about things of this nature. As it is more difficult to write impartially, so it is more difficult to read impartially. Many will probably be hurt, to find so much that appertains to religious affection here condenined; and perhaps indignation and contempt will be excited in others by finding so much justified and approved. And it may be, some will be ready to charge me with inconsistence with myself, in so much approving some things, and so much condemning others; as I have found that this has always been objected to me by some, ever since the beginning of our late controversies about religion. It is a difficult thing to be a hearty zealous friend of what has been good and glorious in the late extraordinary appearances, and to rejoice much in it; and, at the same time, to see the evil and pernicious tendency of what has been bad, and earnestly to oppose that. Yet, I am humbly but fully persuaded, we shall never be in the way of truth, a way acceptable to God, and tending to the advancement of Christ's kingdom, till we do so. There is indeed something very mysterious in it, that so much good, and so much bad, should be mixed together in the church of God: as it is a mysterious thing, and what has puzzled and amazed many a good
Christian, that there should be that which is so divine and precious, as the saving grace of God, dwelling in the same heart with so much corruption, hypocrisy, and iniquity, in a particular saint. Yet neither of these is more mysterious than real. And neither of them is a new thing. It is no new thing, that much false religion should prevail at a time of great revival; and that, at such a time, multitudes of hypocrites should spring up among true saints. It was so in that great reformation, and revival of religion, in Josiah's time, as appears by Jer. iii. 10, and iv. 3, 4; and also by the great apostacy there was in the land so soon after his reign. So it was in that great out-pouring of the Spirit upon the Jews, in the days of JOHN the BAPTIST, as appears by the great apostacy of that people, so soon after so general an awakening, and the temporary religious comforts and joys of many; John v. 35. Ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light. So it was in those great commotions among the multitude, occasioned by the preaching of Jesus Christ. Of the many that were then called, but few were chosen; of the multitude that were roused and affected by his preaching-and at one time or other appeared mightily engaged, full of admiration of Christ, and elevated with joy-but few were true disciples, that stood the shock of trials, and endured to the end. Many were like the stony or thorny ground; and but few, comparatively, like the good ground. Of the whole heap that was gathered, great part was chaff, that the wind afterwards drove away; and the heap of wheat that was left, was comparatively small, as appears abundantly by the history of the New Testament. So it was in that great out-pouring of the Spirit in the Apostles' days; as appears by Matth. xxiv. 10—13, Gal. iii. 1. and iv. 11, 15. Phil. ii. 21. and iii. 18, 19; the two epistles to the Corinthians, and many other parts of the New Testament. And so it was in the great reformation from Popery. It appears plainly to have been in the visible church of God, in times of great revivals as it is with the fruit trees in the spring; there are multitudes of blossoms, which appear fair and beautiful, and there is a promising appearance of young fruits; but many of them are of short continuance; they soon fall off, and never come to maturity.
It is not, however, to be supposed, that it will always be so; for though there never will, in this world, be an entire purity, either in particular saints, by a perfect freedom from mixtures of corruption, or in the church of God, without any mixture of hypocrites with saints-or counterfeit religion and false appearances of grace with true religion and real holiness-yet, it is evident there will come a time of much greater purity in the church, than has been in ages past*. And one great reason of it will be, that at that time, God will give much greater light to his people, to distinguish between true religion and its counterfeits; Mal. iii. 3. And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness. With ver. 18, which is a continuation of the prophecy of the same happy times. Then shall ye re
This appears plain by these texts of scripture, Is. lii. 1. Ezek. xliv. 6, 7,9. Joel iii. 17. Zech. xiv. 21. Psal. Ixix. 32, 35, 36. Is. xxxv. 8, 10, Chap. iv. 3,4. Ezek. xx. 38. Psal. xxxvii. 9, 10, 11, 29.
turn, and discern between the righteous and the wicked; between him that serveth God, and him that serveth him not.
It is by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ. It is plainly by this means, principally, that he has prevailed against all revivals of religion, since the first founding of the Christian church. By this he hurt the cause of Christianity, in and after the apostolic age, much more than by all the persecutions of both Jews and Heathens. The apostles, in all their epistles, shew themselves much more concerned at the former mischief, than the latter. By this, Satan prevailed against the reformation, begun by Luther, Zuinglius, &c. to put a stop to its progress, and bring it into disgrace, ten times more than by all the bloody and cruel persecutions of the church of Rome. By this, principally, has he prevailed against revivals of religion in our nation. By this he prevailed against New-England, to quench the love, and spoil the joy of her espousals, about a hundred years ago. And, I think, I have had opportunity enough to see plainly, that by this the devil has prevailed against the late great revival of religion in New-England, so happy and promising in its beginning. Here, most evidently, has been the main advantage Satan has had against us; by this he has foiled us. It is by this means that the daughter of Zion in this land now lies on the ground, in such piteous circumstances, with her garments rent, her face disfigured, her nakedness exposed, her limbs broken, and weltering in the blood of her own wounds, and in no wise able to arise; and this, so quickly after her late great joys and hopes: Lam. i. 17, Zion spreadeth forth her hands, and there is none to comfort her: the Lord hath commanded concerning Jacob, that his adversaries shall be round about him: Jerusalem is as a menstruous woman among them. I have seen the devil prevail the same way, against two great revivals of religion in this country. Satan goes on with mankind as he began with them. He prevailed against our first parents, cast them out of paradise, and suddenly brought all their happiness and glory to an end, by appearing to be a friend to their happy state, and pretending to advance it to higher degrees. So the same cunning serpent that beguiled Eve through his subtilty, by perverting us from the simplicity that is in Christ, hath suddenly prevailed to deprive us of that fair prospect we had a little while ago, of a kind of paradisiacal state of the church of God in New-England.
After religion has revived in the church of God, and enemies appear, people that are engaged to defend its cause are commonly most exposed, where they are least sensible of danger. While they are wholly intent upon the opposition that appears openly before them, in order to make head against that, and while they neglect carefully to look around, the devil comes behind them, and gives a fatal stab unseen; and he has opportunity to give a more home stroke, and to wound the deeper, because he strikes at his leisure, being obstructed by no resistance or guard.
And so it is likely ever to be in the church, whenever religion revives remarkably, till we have learned well to distinguish between true and false religion, between saving affections and experiences, and those ma
nifold fair shews, and glistering appearances, by which they are counterfeited: the consequences of which, when they are not distinguished, are often inexpressibly dreadful. By this means, the devil gratifies himself, that multitudes should offer to God, under the notion of acceptable service, what is indeed above all things abominable to him. By this means, he deceives great multitudes about the state of their souls; making them think they are something, when they are nothing; and so eternally undoes them and not only so, but establishes many in a strong confidence of their eminent holiness, who, in God's sight, are some of the vilest hypocrites. By this means, he many ways damps religion in the hearts of the saints, obscures and deforms it by corrupt mixtures, causes their religious affections wofully to degenerate, and sometimes, for a considerable time, to be like the manna that bred worms and stank; and dreadfully ensnares and confounds the minds of others, brings them into great difficulties and temptations, and entangles them in a wilderness out of which they can by no means extricate themselves. By this means, Satan mightily encourages the hearts of open enemies, strengthens their hands, fills them with weapons, and makes strong their fortresses; when at the same time, religion and the church of God lie exposed to them, as a city without walls. By this means, he brings it to pass, that men work wickedness under a notion of doing God service, and so sin without restraint, yea, with earnest forwardness and zeal, and with all their might. By this means, he brings in even the friends of religion, insensibly, to do the work of enemies, by destroying religion in a far more effectual manner than open enemies can do, under a notion of advancing it. By this means, the devil scatters the flock of Christ, and sets them one against another with great heat of spirit, under a notion of zeal for God; and religion, by degrees, degenerates into vain jangling. During the strife, Satan leads both parties far out of the right way, driving each to great extremes, one on the right hand, and the other on the left, according as he finds they are most inclined, or most easily moved and swayed, till the right path in the middle is almost wholly neglected. In the midst of this confusion, the devil has great opportunity to advance his own interest, to make it strong in ways innumerable, to get the government of all into his own hands, and to work his own will And by what is seen of the terrible consequences of this counterfeit, when not distinguished from true religion, God's people in general have their minds unsettled in religion, and know not where to set their foot, or what to think, and many are brought into doubts, whether there be any thing at all in religion; and heresy, infidelity, and atheism greatly prevail.
Therefore, it greatly concerns us to use our utmost endeavours, clearly to discern, and have it well settled and established, wherein true religion does consist. Till this be done, it may be expected that great revivals of religion will be but of short continuance; till this be done, there is but little good to be expected of all our warm debates, in conversation and from the press, not knowing clearly and distinctly what we ought to contend for.
My design is to contribute my mite, and use my best (however feeble) endeavours to this end, in the ensuing treatise; wherein it must be no