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Hitherto we have considered the true meaning of the fear of God. We are now to consider what is affirmed of it: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom ;' taking wisdom here to mean true religion, as it often does in the books of Solomon and in the Psalms of David. When it is said that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, you are not to understand merely that the notion of God is, in point of time, or order of nature, prior to religion; which, though it be true, yet is it not the whole of what is taught concerning the fear of God. All religion, indeed, has a relation to God; and therefore without the sense and notion of a Deity there can be no religion : but there is religion which is folly and superstition, that better suits with any name than that of wisdom : and therefore, if the fear of God does only in general show us the necessity of religion, and does then leave us to take our chance in the great variety of forms and institutions that are to be found in the world, it may be our hap to learn folly as well as wisdom, on the instigation of this principle. But in truth, the fear of God does not only show us the necessity of religion, but likewise teaches us wherein true religion, which is indeed wisdom, does consist; and enables us to judge of our offering, whether it be fit to be laid before the Almighty.
In natural religion this is evidently the case ; because in that state there is no pretence to any other rule that can come in competition with this. It is from the notion of a God that men
. come to have any sense of religion ; and it is by the same principle only that they determine this to be a proper part of religion, that to be otherwise. When we consider God as Lord and Governor of the world, we soon perceive ourselves to be in subjection, and that we stand obliged, both in interest and duty, to pay obedience to the Supreme. But what is this obedience ? and in what acts does it consist ? For this we must recur to our natural notion of God. If we conceive him to be holy, pure, and just, we must necessarily judge that he will be pleased with no service but what is agreeable to holiness, purity, and justice: if we conceive him to be a Being good and merciful, a common Father to mankind, whose love is without partiality, and equal to all his creatures, we must, on this view, conclude that religion binds us not to be hurtful or injurious to any of the
sons of men; because it is a contradiction to think that we are bound to serve and obey God, and yet at liberty to injure and abuse those whom he most affectionately loves. Mutual love and benevolence may be a moral duty, arising from the relation of man to man, on mere principles of reason, exclusive of religion; but it becomes part of our religion from such consideration of God's nature as I have just now mentioned. Take from the notion of God any of the moral perfections that belong to it, and you will find such alteration must influence religion likewise, which will degenerate in the same proportion as the notion of God is corrupted. The superstitious man, viewing God through the false perspectives of fear and suspicion, loses sight of his goodness, and sees only a dreadful spectre made up of anger and revenge; hence religion becomes his torment, and he thinks the worse he uses himself, the more he shall please God; and the best service he can pay, is that which renders him most miserable.
There are other kinds of superstition, which, though they have less of torment and anguish, have not more of reason or religion such are they which have turned religion into a trade, and found something to offer God in exchange for virtue and holiness. In all these cases the spring is corrupted, the notion of God is lost, or not attended to: what notion has that man of God, who thinks that washing his hands three or four times a day is a part of religion; who imagines that penances and pilgrimages, or any thing else, is equivalent to virtue and holiness? Search your notion of God; consider his holiness and purity, and see what you can find to make you think that beating yourself, or washing yourself, or parting with your money, will please him like virtue and holiness. These must appear to be absurd follies to any man who will attend to this principle. In the heathen world, some happily discovered some glimmerings of the true holiness and perfections of God, and were to maintain virtue on the foot of religion : others perhaps were much better men than their principles of religion led them to be. The natural sense of good and evil, and the relation of man to man, led some generous spirits into the right way. But in this case goodness was not the effect of religion, but of a
rational nature : it was a political or sociable virtue, but not a religious one.
It is plain then, both from reason and fact, that a just conception and sense of God is the beginning of wisdom, the fountain from which true religion flows: by this it is that you may distinguish between true and false religion, since that only is true religion which is agreeable to the nature of God. « God is a spirit,' says our blessed Lord,' and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.' Here you are referred to the same principle, and by the best authority: you see here our Lord himself inferring the nature of worship from the nature of God.
This may be true, perhaps you will say, on the foot of natural religion, where we have nothing but natural notions to direct us : but what is it to us, who have the surer word of prophecy to guide and instruct us? In answer to this I would observe that natural religion is the foundation on which revelation stands; and therefore revelation can never supersede natural religion without destroying itself. The knowlege of God is, in the nature of things, antecedent to revelation ; for there can be no reason for attending to the voice of God till we know who God is. The natural notion of God then is the foundation of revelation, as well as of natural religion ; and consequently, nothing contrary to this notion can be admitted for revelation, any more than for natural religion.
There is indeed a difference, which ought always to be remembered, and for want of which some have imagined they have discovered great opposition between natural religion and revelation, where in truth there is none. The difference is this : in natural religion nothing can be admitted that may not be proved and deduced from our natural notions ; for every thing must be admitted for some reason; and in natural religion no reason can take place, but this agreeableness of the thing to our natural sense : but in revelation it is otherwise : for revelation introduces a new reason, the will of God, which has, and ought to have, the authority of a law with us. Nor is it plain, from any natural principle, that God cannot enlarge our duty, or oblige us to any thing but what nature has already obliged us
to it is certain he cannot contradict his own nature; and therefore he can teach us nothing contrary to the natural sense he has given us of himself: but as he has authority to give us laws, he may add to our duty and obligations as he sees fit. And therefore it is not necessary all parts of a revelation should be such as may be proved by natural reason: it is sufficient that they do not contradict it; for the will of God is a sufficient reason for our submission.
But however, the essentials of religion, even under revelation, must be tried and judged by the same principle. No revelation can dispense with virtue and holiness; for it may as reasonably dispense with our believing the being of a God, as with our believing that he can or would vacate the obligations to virtue and holiness: for to remove God out of the world, and to change the essential properties of his nature, is one and the same thing. We may be sure then that all such doctrines, all such rites and ceremonies, as tend to subvert true goodness and holiness, are not of God's teaching or introducing.
Nor is there, I believe, a more certain way to keep ourselves steadfastly in the purity of the gospel, than by keeping our eye constantly on this rule. Could enthusiasm or destructive zeal, ever have grown out of the gospel, had men compared their practices with the natural sense they have of God? Would they not have seen that to defend even religion by cruelty and bloodshed must be hateful in the sight of God? Could religion ever have degenerated into such folly and superstition, as in some places it has done, had the true notions of God been preserved, and all religious actions examined by it?
On the other hand, some there are who, taking religion to be what it appears to be in the world, find so much folly, and superstition, and uncertainty in it, that they have chosen, as the safer way, to reject all religion: but could men have judged thus perversely, had they attended to the true rule, and formed their notions of religion from the nature and wisdom of God, and not from the follies and extravagancies of men? How does the folly and perverseness of others affect your duty to God? or how came you absolved from all religion, because others have corrupted theirs? Suppose the people deceived,
and the priests either ignorant or superstitious; what then ? Does the error of one, or the ignorance of the other, destroy the relation between you and God, and make it reasonable for you to throw off all obedience? The fear of God will teach you another sort of wisdom. This therefore you ought to cultivate and improve, and preserve free from error or corruption, as your surest guide in all doubts, and as the true principle of religious wisdom.