Declaring that many rest upon a strict way of Reli∣gion, which yet cometh not up to, but often is besides the appointment of the word.
ACTS 26. 5.
THe Text is part of Pauls Apologetical oration to Agrippa, wherein we have the Exordium, or Preface, and the Narration, or substantial matter summarily contained therein. In the Preface Paul doth with great Rheto∣rique captare benevolentiam, endeavour to incline the affections of Agrippa to him, accounting it an happiness to Apologize before him, who was so expert of all the Jewish customs: In the Narration, we have
First, The history of his former life.
Secondly, Of his present state and conversation.
The Text is part of that Narrative which relates to his by-past conversation, wherein he described himself from the religious condition he then was in, and that first more generally, then more particularly: Generally, He was after the most strict way of Religion〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉 the Originall for Religion. Plutarch tells us, cometh from the Thracians, eminently taken notice of for their devotion: and it is used sometimes in a good sence, sometimes in a bad sence, as it degenerateth into superstition. The Original for Sect, is 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, Heresie, and so the several sects among Philosophers were called Heresies. It is the opinion of Gerhard, a learned man, That this word is alwaies taken in an ill sence in the Scripture: but this place with two or three more in the Acts of the Apostles, seem to imply the use of it in a middle, or indifferent sence, any particular way that a man shall chuse dif∣ferent from the rode, although in the Epistles it is used in an ill sence: Therefore Tertullian called it Secta Christianorum, The Sect of the Christians. Now this way Paul walked in, is aggravated with this adjunct, 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, in the superla∣tive sence: and so Josephus speaks of the Pharisees, as those that were most accu∣rate in the observance of instituted and Traditional obedience: more particularly, his way is described by its denomination, a Pharisee. There were three Sects sprung up among the Jews, the Pharisees, Sadduce •s, and Essenes; the Scripture speaketh nothing at all of the latter, because as some say, They lived like Hermits, in remote solitary places, and so the Evangelist had no occasion to mention them: Now the Pharisees were called, either as some say, from a word to open and explain, because they expounded the Scripture; or from a word to Separate and Segregate; and Ca∣meron upon this place makes the Hebrew word 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉 not to signifie every kind of Division or separation, but that which is after a most subtile, and minute manner: Hence Isa. 28. 29. It is applied to the teeth of a rake, and Horse riders〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, Page 149 are called, 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, because of their spurs: and Proverbs 23. It is applied to The sting of a Bee: Therefore to be a Pharisee, was to be a scrupulous, anxious man, which did subtilly examine all things: Hence they were so strict, that they would not sleep upon any easie thing, least they should have any vain, or indecent thoughts so much as in their very dreams: and because of this strictness, it was that they were so admired among the people, whereas the Saddueces denying Angels, Spirits, and the Resurrection, were for the most part of the richer, and greater sort, because such opinions did best suit with their lusts; yet because of their greatness though they held such fundamental Errors, yet they were not Excommu∣nicated Errors.
From the Text we may observe,
That an extraordinary strict way taken up in Religion, is thought a sure and a good foundation by many for their eternall happiness.*
The Pharisee for this unusual, and supererogating way of exactness, as they judged, was reputed by himself and others, as those that should certainly go to Heaven, if any did. How confidently they used to presume of this, appeareth by Paul, Phil. 3. 5, 6, 7. Where making a Catalogue of those things, He once thought a gain to him; he instanceth in this as one of the last and most noble priviledges, that he was after the Law, a Pharisee: Insomuch that if any might have confidence in external priviledges, he saith, he might. Where Paul also at another time, Acts 22. 3. Declaring his former conversation, mentioneth this particular, as the main, saying, He was taught according to the perfect manner of the Law of the Fathers.
To discover this false sign, several things are considerable, as
First, The way to heaven is a strict and exact way, and all our duties are to be done*with a curious circumspection: Our prayers are to be exact prayers; our obedience exact obedience: so Ephes. 3. Walk〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, exactly: Hence the Gate that leads to happiness is straight and narrow, as the way to hell is broad and easie. I shall not therefore speak against a true and Scripture-exactness: the people of God may, and ought to take comfort, in that they walk in a more singular and exact way then the world doth, and a man living and dying in the common rode and practices of men, having nothing more extraordinary in him then they; hath no symptome of grace upon him: Math. 5. Our saviour speaking to his Disciples, That they should love their enemies; For saith he, If ye love your friends, what singular thing do ye? do not the Publicans the same? Therefore from hence it followeth, That the people of God ought to do singular things to men of the world: There is a good singularity and preciseness: and howsoever the prophane world make a taunt, and reproach of this, that you are so singular and precise, yet none are Godly that are not so: Do not even the Publicans the same? He that goeth no further, and doth no more then Publicans, hath no evidence for salvation: Therefore lay down this for a foundation, The way of Godliness, is a strict, precise, singular way. The Scri∣pture makes it an exact course; and therefore my dissolute, careless, negligent walk∣ing, can no more claim a Title to heaven, then darkness to light. Attend to this, you whose lives are as most of the world are; proud as they, prophane as they, con∣temning of Religion as they.
Now, That godliness must be strictness appeareth partly from the nature of Grace,*which is contrary to our affections, and so doth with prevailing power subdue them to the grief of the unregenerate part: Hence the Scripture calls it, Mortifying, and crucifying the old man; which implyeth the pain and Agony our corrupt part is exercised with by Grace: Christianus est perpetua naturae violentia, to conquer lusts, is To pull out the right eye, and chop off the right hand: and by this we may see how few are Godly, because they are rare that feel this spiritual conflict and agony, there is no mortifying and crucifying within them.
Again, Godliness must needs be exactness: partly, Because our duties are so bounded, and circumstantiated in their principles, manner and ends, That to do a∣ny Page 150 good action, is alwaies to hit the mark, as to sin, 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, is to miss the scope and white. Aristotle placed his Moral virtue, in medio, and so made it difficult to avoid extremities on both sides: but (alas!) the word of God requireth far more concurrences then ever the light of nature could discern: so that if you take any religious action, whether elicite, or imperate, to do it after a godly maner, there must be a great deal of circumspection: there is so much required in the cause, in the manner, in the motive, that we may cry out for every particular duty, which Paul did for one main one, Who is sufficient for these things? so that negligence, formality, and luke-warmness can no more consist with godliness that is of a strict and exact nature, then hell with heaven.
Therefore in the second place, It argueth a tougue and an heart set on fire from*hell, to reproach, and cry out against strictness in the way to heaven. Oh that even among Christians, there should be men whose Throats are such open sepul∣chres, as to send forth such noisome and filthy speeches: What needs all this strict∣ness? What needs all this singularity? Why should men refuse to do as the most do? Is it not their pride and hypocrisie? Alas, ignorant and prophane wretch! What thinkest thou of that place, The Kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force? What thinkest thou of that, Strive to enter in at the strait Gate, for few enter therein? Are these places of Scripture true or no? if so, then wo be to thee, for thou makest the Kingdom of hell to suffer violence, and ta∣kest that by force, though the Word, and Minister, and thy Conscience be against thee: so thou that livest in dissolute prophaneness, ordinary neglect of publique and private Duties, Is thy life such a strict life? Must there be such striving to do as thou dost? Oh consider, either Gods word is wrong, or thou art out of the way: thou art not yet such an Atheist to assert the former, be therefore so far inge∣nuous as to acknowledge the latter.
Thirdly, From hence it followeth, That the number of those who are truely*godly, are very few. They are but a little flock; and they are but few, not onely compatatively to the whole world, but in respect of titular and nominal Christi∣ans, who have the name, and own the profession of Christ, but deny the power thereof. Many are called, but few are chosen, even few of those that are called: as the gold is but little to the other part of the earth; & flowers are few in respect of weeds: so that the ground why people do so easily perswade themselves of their good condition, is because they understand not how exact and strict the way of Grace is. You have this notably cleared Mat. 19. 25. Where our Saviour shewing that it was as impossible for a rich man to be saved, as a Camel to go through the eye of a needle: because its hard to have riches, and not to trust in them, or love them immoderately; when his Disciples heard this, saith the Text, They were exceed∣ingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? They do not say, what rich man? but, who can be saved? because as a rich man hath his riches, so every man hath some∣thing or other that his heart is too immoderately carried out after. Therefore say they, who can be saved? Oh beloved, while we look upon Gods gracious promi∣ses, and Christs merciful invitations, while we think of his love in dying and suf∣fering for us, we are apt to think it a very easie attainable thing to be saved, and no question the Disciples looked on these considerations, else they would not have so startled, and been so amazed at Christs Doctrine: But then on the other side, when we consider what strict qualifications, what exact conversations cught to be in those that go to heaven, we shall then stand amazed, saying, who can be God∣ly? who can pray, hear, as the Scripture requireth these duties? Hence our Sa∣viour to allay the Disciples astonishment, bringeth that universal Axiome, With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible: the way there∣fore to bring you to resolve upon a more exact way of life, is to put you into this * spiritual astonishment, and amazement at the accurate way of Godli∣nesse.
Fourthly, As the way to heaven is a most strict and accurate way, So the Page 151 word of God doth onely declare and reveal what that exactness is: So that as in mat∣ters to be beleeved there is no Doctrine can be urged as necessary, which is not con∣tained in that writing: So in matters to be practised there is no degree, or high strain of holiness that is a duty, which is not also commanded in Gods word: those two commands, one Negatively, Thou shalt not lust the other affirmative, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and soul, and strength, do command both for matter and manner, all that possibly can be done by man, and therefore can never be fulfilled in this life, because of those innate and adherent corrupti∣ons in us. I have seen an end of all things, saith David, But thy commandments are exceeding broad: they contain the whole duty of a man, and this particular is more to be observed, because we are apt to go to extraordinary waies: as if the word of God were indeed a total and adequate rule for our faith, but not for our practice and conversation.
Hence, Fifthly, All strictness introduced, that is not according to Scripture, how*specious and glorious soever it may seem to be, yet it affords no true solis comfort to those that are imployed therein. Now you must know, that as there is a proneness in men, curiously to pry into doctrinal matters above the word of God, to be wise above that which is written, so there is also an ithching inclination in us, to affect an holiness above the Scripture, to bring in a greater strictness then God hath required; not that it is indeed strictness (as is to be shewed, but carnal looseness) onely it hath the appearance so to the eyes of flesh and blood: As for example, The Pharisees way that seemed to be more religious and exact, then the course our Savi∣our taught, and therefore they called him a wine bibber, and charged him for keeping company with sinners: The Pharsees would not come near any such prophane men: they would not go out, or come in, but they would first wash themselves, least they should get any uncleanness upon them. Here in outward appearance, they seemed to teach a more exact, and strict way then Christ: though all this outward austerity did flow from a poy oned, corrupted fountain within.
Let us instance in several waies whereby men may affect, and introduce an higher strictness, then the Scripture speaks of: And I shal not instance in false worship, which was a great part of Pharisaical strictness, busying themselves in those things God never required; for I shal speak of that (God willing) in the next sermon, because it is the greater sign by which many superstitious and ignorant people cousen their souls. I proceed therefore to other affectations of extraordinary strictness, such as these.
First, When the Scripture or word of God is accounted too low a thing to guid us,*and therefore they expect an higher, and more extraordinary teaching by the spirit of God, and that for other matter then is contained therein. It is true indeed, the word of God as it is Scripture, without the Spirit of God, cannot enlighten or change the heart: therefore these two must never be opposed, or disjoyned; but the word of God is the onely adequate rule, to which we are tyed, and the Spirit of God that work∣eth in and by that: so that as God will not produce any extraordinary new mate∣rial light to direct us bodily, but in and through the Sun, so the Spirit of God will not vouchsafe any new spiritual light, but in and through the Scriptures Hence it is, that although God be not bound himself, yet he hath bound us to that only: To the law, and to the Testimony, and search the Scriptures: yea, Timothy must not look for infallible directions from Paul, but give himself to the studie of the Scriptures, which were able to make him fully perfect for every good work. Now the Papist and Enthusiast they both agree in this, to debase the Scripture, not to make it a full and perfect rule; to expect higher, and more noble teachings then are from that. Hence the papist call it inkie Divinity thus to walk and believe onely by Scripture: who can think, say they, That God would have us tyed to Paper and Parchment: and they apply that place of Paul, Ye are our Epistle, 2 Cor 3. 3. Not written with ink, but the spirit of God, &c. making all those that adhere to the Scripture as a rule to live by, the Letter, and not the Spirit: so on the other side, Enthusiasts they undervalue the Scripture; and its reported of them, that they cal∣led Page 152〈1 page duplicate〉Page 153〈1 page duplicate〉Page 152 it Pessimum idolum mundi, the worst Idol in the world: and no wonder if they cry down the Scripture as being a low form, seeing some Anabaptists have denied the humane Nature of Christ, and called those Creaturistas, Creaturists, that held it so: even as some complain that Christ is made a form, and that we ought not to stay on him but go immediately to the Father. Howso∣ever these high things may seem to ravish men, and but people in∣to admiration: yet they are indeed low and false things: do not therefore grow weary of these plain Truths concerning faith and regeneration, or those plain Ser∣mons that teach this; for thou wilt shortly come to be weary of the Scripture it self, as too plain and mean a thing: That as some corrupt fancies have disdained the Scripture (such as Politian and Austin once confessed of himself) because there was not humane eloquence enough in it: so these nauseate the word of God upon another ground, as not having high and lofry Doctrines fit for their Eagle eyes. Therefore it is a miserable thing to consider how such preachers, and people that are thus elevated up to cloudy things, do Torrure and perplex Scripture, to fasten their absurd imaginations upon it: Alas, the cripture was not made for such cu∣rious Aerial speculations: Let not therefore such go any longer a Tiptoe, as if no Christian in all his glory were like to them, because of their abstruse conceptions: for they are higher then others but as chimneys are higher then other parts of the house, that carry away empty, smoaky, obscure vapours. I am the larger upon this, because it is a great part of Grace to sit down contented with the plainness and simplicity of Scripture, both for matter of it, and manner of delivery.
A second extraordinary strict way in which men support themselves, is the undergo∣ing voluntary penalties, or bodily chastisements for sinns past, or setting upon exter∣nal*austers discipline, to prevent sin to come. The Apostle describeth such, Col. 2. 21, 22, 23. where he speaks of bodily discipline, as having a shew of humility, and neglecting of the body; then he explaineth the manner how this neglect was de∣monstrated, viz. by several precepts, Touch not, tast not, handle not. Judicious Calvin doth think there is a gradation, and that superstition grew higher, and high∣er: therefore by the first command Touch not, he understands according to the Scripture use of the word sometimes Eat not, the Antecedent being put for the Consequent: so that their superstition swelled higher and higher: First, Eat not, then Tast not, which is more; then not so much as handle, which is highest of all: But what account doth the Apostle make of all these, in which some put the sub∣stantials of Religion? Truely, nothing at all, in that he calls them Rudiments of the world; and such as argue men not alive with Christ. Where you may observe, That our spiritual resurrection with Christ, doth not onely raise up our hearts a∣bove sin, and earthly things, but also all such humane Ordinances, though seeming never so much to promote piety. True Godliness and participation of spiritual life from Christ, carrieth a man not onely above lusts, and the world but all humane institutions that seem so admirably holy to flesh and blood. Indeed there ought to be a sober, moderate use of all bodily comforts: Therefore the Apostle saith, He kept under his body, an emphatical word, 1 Cor. 9. 27. yea, the whole Context is an expression from these Wrestlers, or Fighters that were known in antiquity: now the adversary that Paul fought with, was his body, that hindered him in his course to heaven: Therefore he saith, 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, he did beat his face black and blew,〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, and 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, Tryumph over his body, and make it a slave. If you ask, how he did this? he expresseth it in that general rule, Every man that striveth for the mastery, is temperate in all things: There ought to be in every one a temperate, sober use of clothes, food, delight: because our bodies are so many ad∣versaries to hinder us in our race to heaven. Auferte ignem, adhuc enim paleas habio, said a languishing sick man of an alluring object standing by him, Take away that fire, for I have straw, or chaff that will kindle quickly. And certainly this Doctrine is much to be pressed upon you that are Citizens, who live in much ease and plenty, & go richly clothed: are you so strict and riged as you should be, in making your body Page 153 instrumental to serve God? The string of the Instrument, if it be wet and not dry∣ed, is not fit to make any melodious tune; no more is the body overmuch repleni∣shed with any pleasure. We see Timothy going too far in the bodily discipline; Therefore Paul adviseth him To drink a little wine for his present infirmities. John Baptist, he also came in an austere way, his garments being of Camels hair, and his food locusts: This way of his was different from Christs: nor is John Baptist an example to us; but his deportment was peculiar, as being most sutable to him that was putting a period to the old Testament-dispensations.
Therefore all those affected Austerities of 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, eating of hearbs, and other dry things, as also Humicubaticus, or lyings on the ground in rough sack-cloth, though the exercisers therein did no doubt much please themselves, and thought hereby to endear God to them: yet all this is but a vain refuge: The Apostle deter∣mineth, 1 Tim. 4. 8. Bodily exercise profiteth little, but godliness is profitable to all things. He makes a distinction between bodily exercise, and godliness; therefore one is not the other: Do not then measure thy hopes and assurances of heaven, though very specious to a carnal eye, by such outward strict observances.
Thirdly, An extraordinary strictness which maketh men confident, Is a volun∣tary abdication, and actual dispossessing our selves of all outward comforts, and apply∣ing our selves onely to religious exercises. How did this mistake seduce thousands of devout souls, who were zealous for God, but wanted knowledge? Hence came those Monasteries, renouncing of riches, wealth, and whatsoever comfort was in this life: As if those places, Unless a man forsake all, and deny himself, taking up the cross and follow me, &c. did command an actual abdication of all, and not rather an habitual preparation of heart to leave them all when God shall call for them. And if we read of Philosophers that have thrown all their wealth away, that they might the better study Philosophy, is it any wonder if a false zeal carry some to part with all, that according to their thoughts, they might the more expeditely come to the races end? It is true indeed, the Scripture commands such strictness in our affe∣ctions and desires to all worldly comforts, That those that have them must be as if they had them not: And who is there that can stand under those exact commands of God herein? yet we may erre on the right hand, as well as on the left. Such were those Euchetae, that gave themselves onely to pray: And the Donatists up∣braiding the Orthodox with their impiety, and commending their own godliness, Nos formidamus divitias, We (say they) are afraid of riches.
Fifthly, Men may judge their Spiritual conditions the better, Because of an ex∣traordinary strictness in Church Discipline, and Church Dispensations, when yet there is no ground at all for it: That there may be overmuch rigor in Discipline, appeareth plainly, 2 Cor. 2. 7. where the Apostle blameth them, That they did not receive into favor that incestuous person, who had truely repented: And the Apo∣stle doth in part suppose it is part of Satans subtile devices, when he cannot destroy a Church by prophaneness, and dissoluteness, to overthrow it by too much severi∣ty. Now how many waies there may be an excess in rigid Church waies, we have upon another occasion shewed: As when men hold onely perfect men; or if not so, only truely godly men to be admitted into Church-fellowship; and men, though qualified with sufficient knowledge, and free from Scandal, to be debarred many priviledges: As also when they think men committing such sins, were ne∣ver to be received again; which was the error of Novatians and Donarists: or if they did admit such repenting, yet not for many years, in which excess the primitive Church did fall. Now all these Doctrines and Practices, having a specious pretence of more strictness, and exactness then others, is a temptation to many, that they build themselves upon these waies and manners, not at all attending to the power and life of Godliness; this is a seasonable Doctrine at this time. Oh, puff not up thy self: do not conclude great things for thy self, meerly because thou judgest thy self in a more strict Doctrinal, or Church way then others. Alas these external waies profit little, but god liness profiteth to all purposes. Many times high principles, have Page 154 but low practices, and strict opinions, sometimes large conversations. Now the ground why these instituted, and introduced strictnesses, are not to be rested upon, is because they are not what they seem to be. We call them high things, but they are indeed low things; we call them strict things, but they are indeed large and loose things. For take this Pharisaical most exact and straight way; alas, their hearts were large and loose enough; so that all strictnesse, which is not commanded by Scripture, comes from a loose principle, and tends to a loose end: for it proceeds from a carnal heart, not acquiescing in Gods word as a rule: it is not subject to Scripture directions, and then the end is carnal; for it is alwaies for some self-ad∣vantage, though it be in a subtile and crafty way. As you see the Pharisees st〈…〉ctnes was, 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, to be seen of men: should they not have applause, and profit, and Disciples to admire them, they would never have engaged in such austere ways.
Use 1. Is there indeed a true Scripture-strictness, without which heaven cannot be obtained; Then see what a gulf there is between heaven and you, who live in all loosenesse, negligence, and carelesse contempt of what is good. Is thy life thou livest so difficult, so contrary to flesh and blood? Is to be drunk, to cousen, to be unclean, like pulling out of the right eye? Thou canst not have bread for thy mouth without the sweat of thy brows, and thinkest thou to have this prize with∣out earnest running in the race? Dost thou think God will provide Salvation for thee, as he did a wife for Adam, by casting thee in a dead sleep, and thou know no∣thing, nor discern nothing of it? But especially do you tremble, who scoff, re∣proach, yea, persecute and oppose men for strictness in religious waies: This argu∣eth a legion of Divels in thee: thou canst not abide the image of God: thou canst not indure to see the practical power of it. The fire of Gods wrath will be heated se∣ven times hotter for such opposers as thou art.
Use 2. Of admonition, to examine and judge wisely of all strictness commanded to thee: For the Divel may seduce thee in thy zeal, as well as in thy prophanenesse: and do not perswade thy self of Grace, because of a more strict opinion, or Church∣practice thou conceivest thy self to be in: For this is not the Scripture-strictnesse in which the essence of godlinesse consists; for that lyeth in the inward circumcisi∣on of the heart, in the powerful mortification of the affections, in walking humbly, in living by faith, and heavenly-mindednesse. Oh, it is easier to be of the strictest Church way in the world, then to practise strict Graces. Oh, what a reproach is it, to pretend a singular way, and not to have a singular heart, and a singular con∣versation? but are men in the broad way, proud covetous, earthly, wanton? so art thou in thy strict way; what a contradiction is this?