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THE ORDINARY MEANS OP GRACE.-INTERCOURSE WITH RELIGIOUS
PROVERBS xjü. 20.--He, that walketh with wise men, shall be wise.
HAVING finished the proposed examination of the great Christian duty of Prayer, I shall now proceed to the next subject in the order formerly mentioned : viz.
Intercourse with religious men.
The Text informs us, that he, who walketh with wise men, shall be wise. Wisdom, it is well known, is extensively employed by the divine writers, particularly by Solomon, to denote Religion. Wise men, therefore, are, in the language of the Scriptures, Religious men.
To walk, denotes, in the same language, to converse familiarly, and frequently, or to have our whole course of life intimately and familiarly connected, with the persons, or objects, with whom, or amid which, we are supposed to walk.
The following doctrine is, therefore, obviously contained in the text, That he who lives, and converses, frequently, and intimately, with religious men, may ordinarily be expected to become religious. The declaration in the text is absolute : but I understand such declarations, as usually meaning no more than I have here expressed. Thus, Train up a child in the way he should go ; and when he is old, he will not depart from it, another expression of the same nature, intends not, that every child, thus educated, will certainly become religious, but that this will ordinarily be the fact, and may, therefore, always be fairly expected. There are two senses, in which the text, without
violence, may be undertsood: the obvious one,
That persons, hitherto destitute of religion, will assume this character ; and the more remote one, That persons, already religious, will by this intercourse become
He, that walketh with wise men, shall be wise: that is, emphatically, or eminently.
Í shall take the liberty to consider the subject with respect to both these senses.
1. Those, who are destitute of religion, and converse frequently, and religiously, with religious men, may ordinarily be expected to become religious.
In proof of this position, I observe,
1. Religion, in the conduct of a man, really and eminently possessed of this character, appears to others to be real.
The Bible exhibits religion with abundant proof, and with supreme force and beauty. It presents this great subject to us in the form of doctrines, precepts, and, so far as history can furnish them, of examples also. "It presents us at the same time, with the most satisfactory arguments, to prove that these exhibitions are made by the hand of God himself. Still, although the mind is unable to deny the sufficiency, force, and beauty, of the representation, or to refute the arguments by which it is supported, it can withdraw itself from both; and in this manner can avoid the conviction, which it is intended to produce, and the emotions, which it is fitted to inspire. The subject is naturally uncongenial to the taste of man: and from every such subject, man almost instinctively wishes to withdraw his attention, and turn his eye away. To do this is almost always in his power; and however dangerous may be the conduct, and however desirable the contrary conduct, will, almost of course, be the dictate of inclination. The subject, which he disrelishes, he can shun. To the arguments, which sustain it, he can refuse to listen. Against the evidence, which they convey, he can close his eyes. In this manner it will be easy for him to say, in the case under consideration, “ The religion, presented to us in the Gospel, forms, indeed, an excellent character ; and would be not a little desirable, were it real and attainable by such a being
as man. But, out of the Scriptures, where shall it be found? There are, it is true, those, who profess to be religious; and who, it must be acknowledged, are somewhat more grave, specious, and imposing, in their deportment, than most other men. But I see nothing in their character, which may not be rivalled by other men; nothing, which may not be explained by the common principles of our nature; nothing, which proves them to possess the extraordinary spirit, exhibited in the Gospel. I think, therefore, it may be reasonably concluded, that the religion, taught in the Scriptures, although beautiful and desirable to the eye of the mind, exists in the Scriptures only; and has no real, or practical, being in the hearts of men. As a speculative object, it is commendable ; as a practical one, it is, I think, chiefly imaginary.” Such may be, such, I doubt not, often have been, the sentiments of persons, living under the Gospel, concerning religion : persons, who have read the accounts concerning it given in the Scriptures, and at the same time have surveyed the conduct of its professors only at a distance, and seen it only in the gross. Nor can it be denied, that these sentiments, although false and groundless, are yet natural, frequent, and, in a sense, common.
But in real life the subject plainly wears a different aspect. There are many persons, and many cases, by whom, and in which, the spirit of the Gospel is manifested, so unambiguously, as to allow of no doubt concerning its reality, nature, and efficacy, in the mind of an honest beholder. The evidence is of such a nature, that it cannot be evaded, unless by a prejudice too gross, a viola
tion of conscience too palpable, to be admitted by a man, who can lay any claim to fairness of character. It would be oftener seen, and oftener acknowledged, were the person, on whom the sight and acknowledgment might have the happy influence under consideration, to converse more frequently, and more intimately, with men of piety. If we were really to walk with wise men; if we were to live by their side ; mark their conduct; compare it with that of others; and inquire concerning the principles, from which it was derived; it would be difficult for us to mistake the nature of this subject. We should see the conduct itself to be exceedingly different, nay, in many respects directly opposite, in the two cases. Effects of this diverse and opposite nature we should be compelled to attribute to diverse and opposite causes. One class of them we should, in a word, be obliged to ascribe to religion, and the other to the native character of man. Even in our secret thoughts we should be forced to make this acknowledgment. The understanding could not withdraw itself from conviction ; and conscience would not fail to hold up the subject in full view.
2. In the conduct of such men religion also appears solemn, dignified, and superior.
All wicked men, unless when under the influence of violent passion, necessarily feel the superiority of those, who are truly and unaffectedly virtuous. A sense of this superiority, and of their own comparative depression, is the source, in an extensive degree, of that hostility, which they so often manifest towards persons of this character. From these emotions no such man can escape. In the neighbourhood of virtue they are always in the shade; and are not unfrequently shrunk and withered. Milton, after having recited the rebuke of Zephon to Satan, says very justly, as well as very beautifully,
“ Abash'd the Devil stood, And felt how awful goodness is, and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely."
Such, in multiplied instances, has been the effect of rebukes, administered by virtuous men to those who were wicked.
The awe, the reverence, the consciousness of superiority, inspired in the minds of sinners by virtue, appearing with its own solemn and venerable dignity, are not always accompanied, nor followed, by hatred. If I mistake not, they, in many instances, terminate in a settled respect and admiration for the virtuous persons, by whose conduct they were excited; emotions, not unfrequently productive of the happiest effects on the hearts, and lives, of those, by whom they are entertained. It is unnecessary to prove, that men naturally seek the company of those, whom they respect and admire. As little is it necessary to show, that the sentiments, and opinions, of such persons have, of course, no small influence over the minds of such as thus seek their company. Between reverencing, and embracing, the sentiments of persons, thus situated, the steps are few, and the transition is easy. There is the utmost reason to believe, that this happy progress has often taken place.
3. In the conduct of such men, also, religion appears lovely.
The consciences of sinful men, perhaps of all such men, when their consciences are permitted to testify at all, testify to the loveliness of Evangelical virtue. In their language, I confess, it is often denied ; and still more frequently, perhaps, is given in a grudg; ing, niggardly manner. By their consciences, it is acknowledged of course.
Wherever the judgment of the mind is allowed to decide without a bias, it of course pronounces the law of God to require nothing but what is reasonable, excellent, and useful. Of this nature, beyond a question, is piety to its Author, and benevolence to his creatures. În no form can these exercises of mind be manifested, without being seen to be amiable by every unprejudiced eye. Justice, kindness, truth, disinterestedness, forgiveness to enemies, and mercy to the suffering, are always desirable, always lovely. With the same amiableness is the government of our passions and appetites regularly adorned. Meekness, gentleness, sobriety, and temperance, are indispensable to an amiable character: and all persons, who wish to be loved by others, are forced, invariably, either to assume, or at least to exhibit, these characteristics to their fellow-men.
The union of these attributes is the consummation of moral excellence to man ; and involves whatever is really and eminently lovely. Wherever they are thus united, and are at the same time exhibited in their native light, without the obscuring influence of characteristical passions, prejudices, uncouthness, or vulgarity, the understanding is compelled to acknowledge their excellence, and, secretly at least, to pronounce them lovely. Even gross and hard-hearted men, much more persons possessing dispositions naturally sweet and susceptible, are often greatly affected by the sincere and artless display of these attributes. In many instances, there is good reason to believe, they produce in the minds of unrenewed men a conviction of the reality of religion, which argument has never been able to produce ; and a sense of its worth, followed by the happiest consequences.
A man of my acquaintance, who was of a vehement and rigid temper, had, many years since, a dispute with a friend of his, a professor of religion; and had been injured by him. With strong feelings of resentment he made him a visit, for the avowed purpose of quarrelling with him. He accordingly stated to him the nature, and extent, of the injury; and was preparing, as he afterwards confessed, to load him with a train of severe reproaches : when his friend cut him short by acknowledging with the utmost
readiness, and frankness, the injustice, of which he had been guilty; expressing his own regret for the wrong, which he had done ; requesting his forgiveness, and proffering him ample compensation. He was compelled to say, that he was satisfied; and withdrew, full of mortification, that he had been precluded from venting his indignation, and wounding his friend with keen and violent reproaches for his conduct. As he was walking homeward, he said to himself to this effect: “ There must be something more in religion, than I have hitherto suspected. Were any man to address me in the tone of haughtiness, and provocation, with which I accosted my friend this evening; it would be impossible for me to preserve the equanimity, of which I have been a witness; and especially with so much frankness, humility, and meekness, to acknowledge the wrong, which I had done ; so readily ask forgiveness of the man whom I had injured ; and so cheerfully promise a satisfactory recompense. I should have met his anger with at least equal resentment; paid him reproach for reproach; and inflicted wound for wound. There is something in this man's disposition, which is not in mine. There is something in the religion, which he professes, and which I am forced to believe, he feels; something, which makes him so superior, so much better, so much more amiable, than I can pretend to be. The subject strikes me in a manner, to which I have hitherto been a stranger. It is high time to examine it more thoroughly, with more candour, and with greater solicitude also, than I have done hitherto,"
From this incident, a train of thoughts and emotions commenced in the mind of this man, which terminated in his profession of the Christian religion; his relinquishment of the business, in which he was engaged; and his consecration of himself to the Ministry of the Gospel.
4. The conversation of Religious persons has often great power upon
the Consciences of sinners. None can set the great truths of the Gospel in so strong, or solemn a point of view, as those who feel them. None can speak of sin so justly, so clearly, or so pungently, as those, who, under alarming convictions, have realized their guilt, and their danger, and been roused by a strong sense of their ruin to the most anxious and laborious efforts for their recovery ; and who, with an ingenuous contrition of heart, have learned to realize its hateful nature, as well as its dreadful consequences. None can speak of holiness like those, who understand its nature, the delightful tenour of its affections, the peace which accompanies it, and the joy which it inspires, by their own undeceiving, impressive, and happy experience.
Who can present in such strong, affecting, awful colours, the world of perdition, as will naturally be employed by those, who have beheld its transcendent evils with realizing conviction, and Vol. IV.