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In some respects all virtues are equal, because the foundation of our obedience is the same, that is, the majesty of the Supreme Legislator, who prescribed all. A man, who should coolly and obstinately violate the least important duties of religion, would be no less guilty than he, who should violate the most essential articles of it. His violation of the least ought to be accounted a violation of the greatest, because by sinning in the manner just now mentioned, he would subvert, as far as he could, the ground of all virtues great and small. St. James saith, Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all, chap. ii. 10. and the reason he assigns is, the same God hath prescribed all, For he, that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now, adds the apostle, if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law, ver. 1. that is to say, thou subvertest the foundation of the law, that forbids adultery, which thou dost not commit, as well as that, which forbids murder, which thou dost commit. In this respect, then, all virtues and all vices are equal. In this view there is no room for distinction between the more and the less important duties of religion.
But this, which is incontestible in one point of view, is not defensible in another. There are some things in the law more important than others; because, though they all proceed from the same tribunal, yet the majesty of God the law-giver was displayed in a more express and solemn manner in ordaining some than others, so that he, who violates the first kind of virtues, attacks this majesty in a more direct manner than he, who is guilty of violating only the last.
The difficulty lies in exactly determining the rules, by which these two classes of virtues are to
be distinguished. The time allotted for a sermon renders such a discussion impracticable. It is, if I may so speak, essential to all sermons preached in this pulpit, that they be discussed superficially. We must accommodate ourselves to custom, and briefly sketch out the present subject.
In order to ascertain what virtues ought to be arranged among the most important, and what among the least, five things must be distinguished. 1. The origin of a virtue. 2. The duration of it. 3. Its object. 4. Its influence. 5. Its destination. From these distinctions arise five rules.
The first rule regards the origin of a virtue. virtue arising immediately from primitive law, is more important than others, an obligation to which arises from some particular circumstances; and those which are immediate consequences of this law, are more important than others, which are remotely consequential.
The second regards the duration of a virtue. A virtue, that runs on to eternity, is more important than another, which belongs only to the economy of time.
The third rule regards the object of a virtue. A virtue, that hath an object, is more important than another, which hath an inconsiderable object.
The fourth rule is taken from the influence of a virtue. A virtue connected with other virtues, and moving along with itself a great many others, is more important than another virtue, which operates independently and alone.
The fifth rule regards the end of a virtue. A virtue, that constitutes the end, to which all religion conducts us, is more important than other virtues, which at most only promote the means, that lead to the end. We shall briefly explain these
five rules, and shall leave them to your mature deliberation.
1. The first rule is taken from the origin of a virtue. One virtue originating immediately in primitive law is more important than another, an obligation to perform which is founded only on some particular circumstances: and such virtues as are immediate consequences of this law, are more important than others, that are only remotely consequential.
Primitive law is that class of maxims, which derive their authority, not from revealed law only, but from the eternal truths, on which they are founded, and from the nature of the intelligent beings, to whom they are prescribed. Such are these. A created intelligence has no right to assume a freedom from the laws of his Creator. The being, who possesseth supreme perfection, is alone worthy of supreme adoration. Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do you even so to them, Matt. vii. 12. Talents, with which I am entrusted by another, ought not to be employed to gratify my particular caprice but they ought to be so used as to enable me to give a good account of them to him, who entrusted me with them, and directed the use of them. Multiply and enlarge these maxims, brethren; I only give you a clue. Virtues of this kind are far more important than others, an obligation to which is founded only on particular circumstances. Virtues of this last kind oblige only as consequences of the primitive law, of which I just now spoke; and they oblige more or less as the consequences are more or less remote. To address consolatory conversation to a sufferer obliges only as a consequence of this primitive virtue, Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. To comfort an afflicted man by conversing with him,
is a consequence more remote from this primitive virtue than to remove his affliction by supplying his wants. Accordingly, the virtues of this consequential kind cease to oblige, when the circumstances, that found the obligation, cease. Hence, it sometimes happens, these duties annihilate one another. We must often omit some to discharge others. We must defer, or wholly omit consolatory conversation, in order to procure and administer real supplies. We must omit relieving a stranger, in order to fly to relieve a fellow-citizen. We must cease to relieve one to whom we are related only as a fellow citizen, in order to attend to the relief of another, who is a member with us of the houshold of faith, Gal. vi. 10. and so on.
2. Virtues anterior to particular circumstances subsist after those circumstances; and my second maxim is only the first in a different point of view. A virtue perpetuated to eternity is more inportant than another, which is confined within the limits of time. Now, the virtues that go on to eternity, are the same, which oblige prior to all the particular circuinstances of time. The two rules therefore unite; it is one proposed in divers views.
Hear how St. Paul reasons to prove that charity is more excellent than all the miraculous gifts, which God bestowed, on the primitive christians. He enumerates these gifts. God hath set in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, governments, diversities of tongues, 1 Cor. xii. 28. But, adds he, covet earnestly the best gifts and yet I shew unto you a more excellent way, ver 31. Then follows his encomium upon Charity. Charity, or love, never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be
knowledge, it shall vanish away, 1 Cor. xiii. 8. Moreover, he places charity not only above all miraculous gifts: but he sets it above all other virtues. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three but the greatest of these is charity, ver 13.
My brethren, what St. Paul said of miraculous gifts, and of some virtues, that they fail in comparison with charity, an obligation to which continues for ever, we say of a thousand particular practices, to which, indeed, you are obliged: but which are not to be compared with other great virtues, of the excellence of which we have been speaking, and which are weightier matters of the law. All these particular circumstances will cease in another life: but these great virtues, to which we would persuade you to give the perference, will never cease. In heaven we can erect no hospitals, visit no sick people, wipe off no slander: but we shall be happily united by ties the most agreeable, the most close, and the most indissoluble. In heaven we shall love one another with sentiments the most sincere, the most lively, the most tender; because we shall participate the same God, propose to ourselves the same end, and be for ever in the highest bliss. In heaven we shall have no temple: we shall eternally enjoy the presence of God. In heaven we shall not take hold of each others skirts, Zech. viii. 23. according to the expression of a prophet, saying, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, Isa. ii. 3. but we shall incessantly animate one another to celebrate the praises of the author of our existence and happiness. In heaven we shall not approach a table to commemorate, by receiving a little bread and wine, our divine Redeemer, and to hold communion with God: but we shall be as closely united to God as creatures can be to the Creator. Those virtues, which approach