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BY THE LATE REV. BARTHOLOMEW TEELING STANNUS.
JOHN viii. 32 :
"The truth shall make you free."
By nothing has Christianity been more foully misrepresented, or more fatally injured, than by its being viewed and spoken of as a system of bondage. It has been common with the adversaries of our religion, to regard and represent it in this character; as binding the understandings of men to the yoke of implicit faith, requiring belief without evidence and assent without investigation, and confining all the energies of thought within a certain prescribed round of ideas. It has been treated again and again as a system of moral servitude, as fettering the will to a set of arbitrary performances which have neither utility nor dignity to recommend them, as enslaving the fancy to a host of chimerical apprehensions alike degrading and unhappy, and as cramping and binding down the whole man. So extensively has this idea pervaded the minds of unbelievers, that the title by which they often chose to distinguish themselves in former times, was that of “Freethinkers," as if Christian faith and freedom of thought were altogether antagonistic principles.
If this were a true representation of our religion, assuredly it would not be easy to defend it against the assaults of its opponents. If its tendency and its legitimate effect were, to narrow our range of thought, to overbear the freedom of moral action, to bind our whole nature in forced subserviency to forms and rules ; if the gospel were thus unfriendly to the noblest powers and exercises of the human mind, there would be a strong presumption that it did not come from the Being who formed and endowed that mind. All our powers and capacities were bestowed on us by our Maker, God; bestowed (we cannot doubt) to be exercised and improved—improved to their highest point of expansion, and exercised to the utmost measure of their force. Freedom is a necessary condition of such exercise and improvement; and we cannot suppose that He who ordained the end, would forbid the means.
We cannot suppose that the Creator would first endow us so largely with the noblest energies of intellect and feeling, and then, as it were, revoke the gift, by subjecting them to a system which should confine and cramp them. It is much more in accordance with what we might humbly anticipate from the infinitely wise and good Being who created us, to believe that He should watch with a parent's interest the intellectual and moral growth of his offspring; that, if He should interfere with the laws of His own appointment, it would be in furtheránce of the beneficent purposes for which they were ordained; and that any religious dispensation of His bestowment, would be a dispensation of life, freedom, and power. Now I am desirous of shewing that this is the character and tendency of the gospel of Christ ; that it is friendly to our best powers of mind and heart; that its truth makes us free; that its service is a reasonable service ; that it breathes upon us the spirit, not of weakness nor of fear, but “of power, of love, and of a sound mind.”
I observe, in the first place, that the gospel sets us free from all superstitious dread of unseen powers.
One of the most remarkable principles of human nature is, its tendency to look up to invisible superior beings. We see this in all classes of society, in all countries of the world, and in all ages of the world's history. Man is not, and cannot be, the mere creature of sense—he must have something above himself, to venerate and worship. The very history of unbelief proves this. Scepticism has never been a general or permanent condition of the human mind; and the unhappy individuals who have attempted to reason themselves and others into atheistic incredulity, have found little sympathy in the heart of mankind at large. This peculiarity is the principle and foundation of all religion. It is this which makes faith and worship congenial to our nature, and renders us fit subjects of divine revelation.
At the same time, there is no principle of our nature so liable to abuse, or so fatally mischievous when abused. In ages and countries un visited by the light of revelation, it has led men to people the universe with fictitious, and often-times malevolent, divinities. They have made to themselves “gods many and lords many;" and the burden of human woes has been frightfully aggravated by the weight which superstition has added to it. Possessing no clear knowledge, nor scarcely a fugitive conception, of the one living and true God, they have left the whole business of religion to passion and imagination; the character of the votary has determined the attributes of the god ; and every vice and folly of the human heart has found its representative and patron in the catalogue of pagan mythologies.
Even in Christian countries, a portion of these mischiefs yet remains uncorrected; for they have their origin, not in particular forms of belief, but in the natural weakness of human reason and the prevalent corruptions of the human heart. The trembling dread of unseen powers has not been altogether banished from the world. That faith in a wise and beneficent Deity, which the gospel is designed to plant in every bosom, has been adulterated with a large admixture of very opposite elements. The attributes of the Most High God have been so misconceived and misrepresented, that the Infinite Father has been regarded with a slavish and most unfilial terror, rather than with the love that casteth out fear; not to say, that in the creeds and opinions of many Christians, there is another being, besides the Father of mercies, who largely interferes with the destiny of men—a malignant spirit, possessed of a power scarcely distinguishable from omnipotence, of a knowledge not far short of omniscience, and of an attribute something very like omnipresence. The Scripture personification of the evil principle has been treated very generally as a literal announcement of essential truth, second only in importance to faith in the being and perfections of Almighty God.
From these and all such terrors, it is the office and prerogative of Christianity to set us free. Revealing to us One God even the Father, and teaching us to refer all beings to His creative power, and all events to His providential appointment, the gospel clears the mind from a host of anxious superstitions ; raising, rectifying, and enlarging the religious principle of human nature, and disenchanting the phantoms of imagination into the stable forms of truth and soberness. The Christian disciple, to whom there is but One God, and this God, “love,” may and ought to be free indeed; free from all apprehension of supposed malignant agents, who, if they do exist, exist and act in absolute subordination to the Almighty Father—free from anxious alarms regarding the character and purposes of the Infinite Being, on whom he feels himself dependent, assured that all things are ordained in love, and work together for good.
Let us never delude ourselves, then, with the idea, that religion is a principle of bondage. Let us never regard impiety or unbelief as offering to us a single exemption from restraint, such as a wise and good man ought to covet. It is bondage, not to know God; for this is an ignorance that opens many an avenue to fanciful terrors. The man who is living "without God in the world,” is also living “without hope.” He has none in whom he can confide in danger-none, to whom he can pray in weakness -- none, whose favour may cheer and quicken him in duty. It is also bondage to think falsely of God; to regard Him as implacable, arbitrary, or capricious; to stand in awe of Infinite Power, but to feel no trust in Infinite Love. But, to believe in One God even the Father; to repose with full assurance of faith upon the unity of His nature, the harmony of His character and ways, the wise and orderly beneficence of His appointments; to love the Infinitely Good with all the heart, and soul, and mind, and strengththis is a reasonable service—this is perfect freedom.
In the seconil place, the gospel sets us free from anxious, misplacel scrupulosity respecting the path of duty and the requirements of moral obligation.
It may seem indeed to many, that this is an object of very small importance or necessity; that there is little danger of men's being too punctilious in the discharge of duty, or too anxiously minute in every investigation and performance that conscience appears to require. It may be deemed, that the passions and habits, the inclinations and the indolence of the natural heart, are well able to correct or even prevent any error of this kind, without the aid of a special divine revelation. But we forget the actual evils which have resulted to mankind from false notions of duty, and mistaken zeal in the discharge of it. The moral sense may slumber perhaps in the generality of human bosoms; but it has seasons of most wakeful activity ; and, when it is awakened, it is a force of mighty power, and none more needs to be guided from above. Many a mind has been miserably enslaved by its own mistaken sense of duty. Some men have placed duty in bodily penances,