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I repeat it again, my brethren, I address to all the faithful, whom the devotion of this day hath assembled in this sacred place, the same precept that God commanded Moses to address to all the congregation of Israel. The law of holiness, which I preach to day, commands you our supreme governors. Arbiters of your own laws, you see no mortal upon earth to whom you are accountable for your conduct, but there is a God in heaven, whose creatures and subjects you are, and who commands you to be holy. The law of holiness commands you, priests and levites of the new testament. The sacred character, with which you are invested, far from dispensing with your obligation to holiness, enforceth it on you in a more particular manner. This law commands
This law commands you all, my hearers, of what order, of what profession, of what rank soever you be. If you be a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a peculiar people, you ought also to be a holy nation, that ye may shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light, 1 Pet. ii. 9. Whatever prerogatives Moses had above us, we have the same law to prescribe to you, that he had to Israel, and the voice of heaven saith to us now, as it said once to him, Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy.
This discourse will have three parts. The term holiness is equivocal, and, consequently, the command, ye shall be holy, is so. We will endeavor to fix the sense of the term, and to give you a clear and distinct idea of the word holiness. This will be our first point.
Holiness, which, in our text, is attributed to God, and prescribed to men, cannot belong to such different beings in the same sense, and in all respects. We will therefore examine in what sense it belongs to God, and in what sense it belongs to men; and we will endeavor to explain in what respects God is holy, and in what respects men ought to be holy: this will be our second part.
Although the holiness, that is attributed to God, differs in many respects from that which is prescribed to men, yet the first is the ground of the last. The connection of these must be developed, and the motive enforced, ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy : this shall be our third part. This is the substance of all we intend to propose.
I. The term holiness is equivocal, and, consequently, the command, ye shall be holy, is so. Let us endeavor to affix a determinate sense to the term, and to give you a clear and distinct idea of the meaning of the word holiness. The original term is one of the most vague words in the Hebrew language. In general, it signifies, to prepare, to set apart, to devote. The nature of the subject to which it is applied, and not the force of the term, must direct us to determine its meaning in passages where it occurs. An appointment to offices the most noble, and the most worthy of intelligent beings, and an appointment to offices the most mean and infamous, are alike expressed by this word. The profession of the most august office of the high priesthood, and the abominable profession of a prostitute, are both called holiness in this vague sense.
The poorest languages are those in which words are the most equivocal, and this is the character of the Hebrew language. I cannot think, with some, that it is the most ancient language in the world; the contrary opinion, I think, is supported by very sufficient evidence. However, it must be granted,
it hath one grand character of antiquity, that is, imperfection. It seems to have been invented in the first ages of the world, when mankind could express their ideas but imperfectly, and before they had time to render language determinate, by affixing arbitrary names to all the objects of their ideas.
This remark may appear at first useless, particuJarly in such a discourse as this. It is, however, of great consequence; and I make it here for the sake of young students in divinity; for as the writers of the holy scriptures frequently make use of terms, that excite several ideas, the reasons of their choosing such terms will be inquired : and on such reasons, as the fancies of students assign, some maxims, and even some doctrines will be grounded. I could mention more mysteries than one, that have been found in scripture, only because on some occasions it useth equivocal terms. An interpreter of scripture should indeed assiduously urge the force of those emphatical expressions, which the holy Spirit sometimes useth to signify, if I may so speak, the ground and substance of the truth: but, at the same time, he should avoid searching after the marvellous in other expressions, that are employed only for the sake of accommodating the discourse to the genius of the Hebrew tongue.
The force of the term holiness, then, not being sufficient to determine its meaning, its meaning must be sought elsewhere. We must inquire the object, to which he devotes himself, who, in our scriptures, is called holy. For, as all those words, ye shall be holy, for I am holy, are equal to these, ye shall be set apart, or ye shall be devoted, for I am set apart, or devoted, it is plain, they cannot be well explained unless the object of the appointment or designation be determined. This object is the matter of our present inquiry, and on the investigation of this depends our knowledge of what we call holiness. Now, this subject is of such a kind, that the weakest christian may form some idea of it, whilst the ablest philosophers, and the most profound divines, are incapable of treating it with precision, and of answering all the questions that a desire of complete explication may produce.
The weakest christians may form (especially if they be willing to avail themselves of such helps as are at hand) some just notions of what we call holiness. It seems to me, that in this auditory at least, there is not one person, who is incapable of pursuing the following meditation : to which I intreat your attention.
Suppose, in a world entirely remote from you, a society, to which you have no kind of relation, and to which you never can have any. Suppose God had dispensed with an obedience to his laws in favor of this society, had permitted the members of it to live as they thought proper, and had assured them that he would neither inflict any punishment upon them for what we call vice, nor bestow any rewards on an attachment to what we call virtue. Suppose two men, in this society, making an opposite use of this independence. The one saith to himself, Since I am the arbiter of my own conduct, and the Supreme Being, on whom I depend, hath engaged to require no account of my actions, I will consult no other rule of conduct than my own interest. Whenever it
Whenever it may be my interest to deny a trust reposed in me, I will do it without reluctance. Whenever my interest may require the destruction of my tenderest and most faithful friend, I
myself will become his executioner, and will stab him. Thus reasons one of them.
The other, on the contrary saith, I am free indeed, I am responsible only to myself for my con
duct, but however, I will prescribe to myself some
God am holy.